By Dan Coughlin

2009 was the most extraordinary year of my life not because of what I earned but rather because of what I learned. The year was filled with more learning experiences on more areas of my life than any other. My hope is that some of these lessons will be of value to you in 2010.

The Value of Life
The single biggest lesson for me was to value the value of life to a greater degree.

From July 2008 to May 2009 six important people in my life died: Aunt Loretta, Aunt Marie, Aunt Helen, my cousin Larry, my good friend Kevin Wade, and my dad. The hardest of all of these was losing my dad. Dad was an encourager. Even though I don’t think he ever really fully understood what I do for a living, he always kept encouraging me and showing interest in my work. Dad died six weeks before his 80th birthday.

Next to my desk I have a letter I wrote to him on his 75th birthday. It summarized many of the main events and routine happenings in our lives together. Dad made a copy of it, wrote a note on it, and gave me that copy. I never understood why he did that since the letter was from me to him. Now I’m so thankful he did. At the end of the note he wrote, “Dan, I love you forever, Dad.”

On his 75th birthday I took him to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. We sat and talked all night. He told me about his volunteer efforts with the Hibernians and with Mother Theresa’s Soup Kitchen. I said, “Where do you find the energy for all of that?” He said, “You never know how long you’re going to live. You have to make the most of your time while you can.” Two years later he was in stage two of a terrible disease called Dementia with Lewey Bodies. A little more than two years later he was dead.

I’m so grateful that for the last eight days of his life I got to kneel by his side, hold his hand, kiss his forehead, and tell him over and over how much I appreciated what he did for me and how much I loved him. His last three words to me a few days before he died were, “…love you, too.” A few hours before he died almost everything shut down for him. His eyes glazed over, his mind was gone, his muscles stopped working, and the blood was leaving his feet and hands. However, his heart was pumping as strong as ever. I’ll never forget that. The strongest part of Dad until his very last second was his heart. I NEVER let a day go by without hugging my wife, Barb, and our children, Sarah and Ben, multiple times. Remember the value of life.

A few months ago members of my church helped to organize a special fundraiser for our good friend, Shannon, who lost her husband to cancer in 2008. It was an awesome night. 600 people showed up and we raised nearly $30,000. As Shannon stood behind the podium with her three young children and celebrated her husband Scott’s life, I was reminded again of the value of life.

These are tough economic times for the world. I know you’re busy trying your best to create and deliver value for your customers and to take care of your family. However, in the end life is about relationships. Life is about making time for our family and friends and really investing ourselves in their lives. In the end our lives are not that long and we never know how much time we have left with anyone. Focus your attention on people, not things and not honors and not rewards.

The Value of Time
This is connected to the value of life. I can’t imagine wasting time anymore. There is simply too much to do: my family, my work, my friends, my workouts, my volunteer efforts, my reading time, and so much more. Every month I have lunch and recess with each of my two children, Sarah and Ben. Total investment: 100 minutes a month. That’s priceless time to me. Every day I read for 30-60 minutes. Again, priceless. My wife, Barb, and I have four to five television shows a week we like to watch together by ourselves. That’s our fun time. I write blogs, twitters, and articles almost every day. That’s time well spent. I exercise for 60-90 minutes every day. Valuable. I have lunch with my mom at least every other week. That’s time that can’t be replaced. Every pocket of time can be filled with value or used to create value. See the value of time.

The Value of a Dollar
As with many businesses around the world, my revenues were down significantly in 2009. From that came something very good. I finally realized the wisdom of my two parents who were both born during the Great Depression. They always talked about the value of a dollar, and I always ignored them. If I had money, I almost always found a way to spend it. This year I finally learned the empowering feeling of not spending money. I realized the utter foolishness of advisors who suggested you have to drive a certain car or wear certain clothes or use a certain pen in order to be seen as credible. My value-added is in the user-friendliness of my practical ideas on improving business performance, not in what car I drive or what clothes I wear or what I write with. 2009 has been the beginning of what I hope is a life-long respect for every single dollar that I am responsible for.

The Value of Value
On May 30th Barb, Sarah, Ben, and I went to see the film, Up, by Disney/Pixar Animation Studios. I loved it. And I gained another lesson from this year. Pixar Animation Studios has now made 14 films since their first one, Toy Story, in 1995, and all 14 films have gone to #1 at the box office.

Apple’s iPhone came out in 2007 and it sells faster now than ever before. It didn’t even exist three years ago, and now in the midst of a terrible recession everybody has to have it and they find a way to get it.

Mitch Albom and Malcolm Gladwell came out with books within the past 12 months and they both shot to #1 on the bestseller lists.

Lesson Learned: Even in the midst of a terrible recession, companies and individuals who create great value generate extraordinary results. The absolute key for any business or any individual to prosper in bad economic times is to create and deliver incredible value that other people will feel they absolutely must have. What value can you deliver and what value can you help your organization to deliver that will help you to rise above this recession and be in greater demand than ever before?

The Value of Tough Times
People talk about 2009 as though it were the worst year of their lives. Ironically, one day we will all look back and realize that 2009 caused significant changes in behavior that led to incredible results. Let’s step back in time and look at two examples of where greatness found its starting point in the “worst of times.”

In her book, The Definitive Drucker, Elizabeth Haas Edersheim, does a great job of describing what Toyota Motor Company went through in its early days after it was founded in 1930. I admire Toyota as much as any company in the world. From Corolla to Camry to Avalon to Lexus, Toyota has managed to create magnificent cars at every price point from economy to luxury. They all ride beautifully and require very, very little maintenance. However, I think their real greatness can be traced to their earliest days.

The founder of Toyota was Sakichi Toyoda. The global business economy was so bad in 1930, that he changed the spelling of his last name to Toyota, according to Edersheim “because in Japanese the letter ‘t’ has one fewer stroke than ‘d’ – thus saving time on printing signs and advertisements – an early indication of the ceaseless focus on efficiency that would come to characterize the organization.” She goes on to say, “The car market in Japan at that time was small. Because the competition was so stiff and capital so hard to accumulate, Toyota had to do everything possible to minimize the time between when it purchased parts and assembled vehicles and when it received payment – hence, the birth of the company’s vaunted ‘just-in-time’ production methods.”

She then explains that the extremely difficult economic period of the 1930s caused the Toyota management team to discuss every decision in detail and only to move forward when every member had an opportunity to offer their perspective in group consideration. They simply could not waste any money. This same careful, collaborative approach to decision-making has carried on to this day.

Would these highly effective management approaches been developed if they had not been faced with a very tough economic situation? My hunch is that it probably would not have happened. Only when trapped in a very tough situation do most humans begin to scramble mentally and physically to figure a way out.

In 1997 Apple Computer had reached nearly to the end of its rope. They had managed to lose one billion dollars in the previous quarter, and they were perhaps six months away from bankruptcy. Steve Jobs came back as the interim CEO and the rest is history. He quickly moved the company from having 80 different computers and variations of computers to just four. He then carefully introduced two new concepts in 2001: a digital music player, the iPod, and the iTunes music store. By staying remarkably focused on doing a great job with a few products, Apple transformed itself into one of the world’s greatest companies and Steve Jobs was recently named CEO of the Decade by Fortune magazine.

These extremely tough economic times can have a very big upside. What is it forcing your organization to do that can ultimately lead to generating sustainable, profitable growth? What could it be forcing your organization to do that can improve its future dramatically?

The Value of Detoxing
A few weeks ago my computer had a terrible virus. I would enter websites and the internet would take me to the wrong sites. I quickly shut down my computer and called a terrific computer consultant. He worked his magic, removed the virus, and installed a much better anti-virus software than the one I had.

This reminded me of my major personal theme for 2009. I wanted to “detox my system” of a lot of bad habits. I define a toxic habit as anything a person does, thinks, or says that keeps them from performing at their best. I identified a number of toxic habits that I needed to focus on including eating, spending, emotions, language, immediacy, impulsiveness, and playing old mental tapes. Each day I reviewed how I did relative to these toxic habits. Like my computer consultant did for my computer, I was able to reduce the impact of these toxic habits little by little. I dropped 18 pounds and kept if off, realized the importance of not expecting an immediate positive result for every effort I made, and let go of some frustrations I have been carrying around for years. The lesson I learned is success is not just about learning new things and achieving new heights of achievement. Sometimes it’s about removing the viruses we build up inside of ourselves.

The Value of Prayer
This was another major learning for me. This is only the second time I’ve ever written about prayer in one of my business articles. If spirituality is not your thing, then you can skip this part. I’ve always prayed, but usually it was very sporadic and done only occasionally. This year I prayed consistently two to three times a week.

I never pray for results. I never pray for health or safety or any type of outcome. Essentially, I pray for advice on what to do. My prayer is basically the same one over and over. I ask God four questions: How am I doing? What am I doing well? What am I not doing well? What should I be doing differently? Usually I hear something I don’t want to hear, and it causes me to reflect on what adjustments I need to make. I think prayer helps me to be a better person, and I think it helps me to be more genuinely who I really am in all situations. Praying has helped me to be more comfortable in every setting. I don’t ask God for money or material things. I ask for insights. Based on those insights, I try to figure out what to do next.

The Value of Reading
This really isn’t a new lesson. It’s something I’ve known for 25 years. However, I thought you might like to see my reading list from 2009. I found value in every one of these books:

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
by Tony Dungy
Battlefield of the Mind
by Joyce Meyer
by Jack Bogle
Have a Little Faith
by Mitch Albom
Leading, Living, and the American Dream
by John Gardner
The Score Takes Care of Itself
by Bill Walsh and Steve Jamison
It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For by Roy Spence and Haley Rushing
Hit the Ground Running by Jason Jennings
The Shack by William Young
Development of Professional Expertise edited by Anders Ericsson
Broken Trust by Patrick Fleming, Sue Lauber-Fleming and Mark Matousek
Take the Risk by Ben Carson
Shooting Stars
by Lebron James and Buzz Bissinger
Obstacles Welcome
by Ralph de la Vega
Greater Than Yourself
by Steve Farber
The Definitive Drucker
by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim
Mockingbird by Charles Shield
To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Dutch Total Football
by Terry Michler.

About Dan Coughlin
Visit Dan at Dan is a student and teacher of practical processes that improve business performance. His purpose is to work with executives and managers so they achieve great performances. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, executive coach, and author of three books on management performance, including his newest, The Management 500: A High-Octane Formula for Business Success (AMACOM 2009), which has been endorsed by Jason Jennings, Marshall Goldsmith, and Brian Tracy. Dan’s clients include Coca-Cola, Abbott, Toyota, Prudential, Shell, Boeing, Marriott, McDonald’s, Denny’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals.